How to Photograph Headstones for Genealogy Work

How to Photograph Headstones & Cemeteries



DIGITAL: I recommend an Olympus D-340R. This is a good camera and the cost is around $227-369. This camera has a flash, auto focus and its what I used to take most of the photos on the web site... The downside to this camera is that it doesn't have a zoom, so you have to deal with that. For the price though, this is THE best camera on the market.†

If you prefer a higher end camera, I suggest the Olympus C-3030, itís around $899.00 but it has every bell and whistle on it, including the zoom. (I purchased this due to the fact I plan on publishing CDís of cemeteries and needed a great camera) For both of the cameras, you can get a E-Reader that will take the photos off your camera and shoot it to your pc/laptop VERY fast. (great when you are out there in the heat) With this new camera I can shoot up to 665 (64mb†memory card) photos before I have to send them to my laptop... The other camera I can shoot up to 255 (smaller card.. 16 mb I think) or so good photos. You dont need a laptop however when you are in the field since you can just purchase external memory cards. (Of course I also have a new Sony MVC-CD300 that I am still testing out, and so far this is the best and worth every penny!!)

External memory cards are used to extend the camera's internal memory. Cards range from 4Mb to 96Mb, and range from $20.00 to $200.00, most of the bigger cards will come with an e-reader and the software to match. 

35 MM: As far as regular 35mm cameras, most of them are pretty good that are on the market. The Association For Gravestone Studies recommends using a 35 mm SLR that is outfitted with either a 50-55mm lens or a wide angle 35mm lens for crowded areas. Smaller lenses will distort the straight lines in the image. If you are utilizing a 35 mm SLR, either black and white or color film can be used. Black and white Tri-x film is a good choice. Filters can be helpful when shooting black and white images. An orange filter increases the contrast while a polarizing filter can reduce glare. Color film with an ASA of 200 shot at 1/250th of a second should yield a good result. 

I recommend that you do not use a throw away camera, you will be disappointed in the quality of the photographs, not to mention the time youíve invested in shooting headstones. 


Like any good genealogist, organization and preparation are always a key factor in success! This kit rides around in my truck 24/7, and there have been several times that I was very glad to have it with me! Most of these items can be purchased at Wal-Mart or a hardware store very inexpensively. Cemetery kits are available for purchase online, but they aren't as complete and a little pricey.


1.Shovel or small hoe (cheap at a garden center, comes in handy when you have overgrowth)†
2. Cheap paint brushes (several different sizes for removing dust and debris from the crevasses of the etchings)†
3. Roll of paper towels
4. Box of wipes 
5. Soft bristle brush (a nail brush is best to clean stones with)†
6. Shotgun (for the snakes I'm just kidding, I just carry high old boots with me)†
8. Gloves (keeps your hands cleaner)†
9. Notebook and pens or pencils or a handheld Palm (always copy down the inscription, even though you may take a photograph or make a rubbing, there is nothing more disparaging than coming home and finding that a photograph didn't take) 
10. Two jugs of water and/or a cooler of drinks.†
11. Camera, extra batteries and memory cards.†
12. Mirror (8x10 minimum, but bigger is better)
13. Carpenter's apron (these have multiple pockets in which to put some of your equipment as you move from tombstone to tombstone) 
14. Gardener's knee pads (I couldn't count the times I have plopped down to shoot a headstone only to find my knees in a patch of stickers)
15. Garden shears or heavy duty scissors (to trim away the weeds and grass) 
16. Whisk broom (to remove the trimmed weeds and grass and some of the dirt from the base of the stone) 
17. Sunscreen 
18. Bug repellent 
19. Maps and copies of transcriptions (if you can get them, this helps to double check your work, especially on headstones that are hard to read)
20. Insect repellant 
21. First Aid kit 
22. Snakebite kit 
23. Bee and wasp spray 
24. Ivy Block (for poison ivy, oak and sumac) 
25. Last but not least, a storage box to keep all this in. 



Most people canít travel to every cemetery that an ancestor is buried at and I really urge you to photograph the whole cemetery. Iíve found that its taking me only 1-1 1/2 hours to photograph 200 headstones. Headstones are disappearing at an alarming rate either to vandalism or just plain erosion, and you can help your descendents and others by photographing and submitting your cemeteries photographs online. 

When I arrive I like to start at one end of the cemetery and work my way through. This also where your mirror will come in handy. The older stones have a lot of wear and tear and you can use the mirror to reflect light on the stone. 

Since you are creating a record of the cemetery in addition to photographing a single stone. Here are my suggestions on what should be photographed: 

1. Several showing the whole cemetery. Its best to take one from several different angles in the cemetery. 
2. The front gates of the cemetery. 
3. Each headstone. Most of the preservationist recommend shooting two shots of each headstone, one close up and one from a distance. Itís also optional to shoot a wide shot of the family plot. (this is helpful when trying to locate missing family members, such as a field stone in the plot, and unmarked graves)

The following are suggestions from on how to get those hard to read stones to stand out in your photographs: 

Mirrors - By using a mirror to direct bright sunlight diagonally across the face of a grave stone, you can easily cast shadows in indentations which will makes inscriptions much more visible and easy to read. This method often brings out details that might otherwise be missed. A plastic full-length mirror works well. Ideally, the stone should not be taller than the mirror. If the stone is located in the shadows, you may be able to use two mirrors to help you reflect light. It might help to practice at home to determine the size of mirror that is needed and how to redirect the sunlight. But this is a safe way to get good photos without having to touch the stones. Note to photographers - If the sun is directly shining on the stone face, giving you too much glare, try using the mirror to throw light from the side and have someone block the direct sunlight. 

Aluminum Foil - This is a variation on the use of mirrors as discussed above. By taking everyday aluminum Foil (Reynolds Wrap) which can easily be found at any grocery store or most convince stores and covering it over a piece of cardboard or some other hard substance, you can create a inexpensive alternative to a mirror that is non breakable, works just as good as a mirror and more importantly will not damage the stone in any way. The person who first suggested this method told the story of once needing some extra light and asking at a restaurant for a piece and found a piece of cardboard in a dumpster. Overall this method may not be the best way to go, but in a pinch it's worth a try. 

Water - Just getting a stone wet can make the carvings stand out much more than when dry. It also adds to the enhancement if the sun light is at a good angle. Some stones don't photograph well, even when they can be read easily with the eye. Those stone really show well for photographs using the water method. The surface will dry much faster than the lettering. In most cases, the indented lettering will stay moist and dark which will enhance the image. In many cases, this will allow you to read the lettering fairly easily regardless of any fading that has occurred. We suggest that you carry several gallon jugs of water and a couple of large spray bottle to cemeteries. 

Hand Rubbing - It is sometimes possible on a uniformly colored stone surface, to lightly brush the surface with the palm of your hand, which raises a light dust (often dead lichen), and leaves the recessed inscription as a dark color. It is often worth a try! 

Doís & Doníts:

The following was sent to me via email from Bill Spurlock, at

The most important thing to stress I think is that at least some people are going to do what they want to get the best results in as little time as possible. That being the case, it's vital to clean the stone to the best of your ability when your finished. Flood the stone with water. To many people think that it's on to just leave the additive on the stone and wait for the next rain to come along and wash it off. Here in Georgia we are stuck in the middle of a drought and if you do something like that here there is no telling how long it may stay there.

Chalk. There has been some debate concerning the use of this and I went to Crayola and ask them about it and this is the reply that I got from them. "Crayola sidewalk chalk contains plaster of Paris which has a gritty texture. Plaster of Paris is not considered to be biodegradable, nor are most of the pigments contained in Crayola sidewalk chalk. Also, product packaging warns of colorants that may stain. This could be a good factor depending on the exact nature of what you are trying to do. While packaging does warn of colorants that may stain, chalk used outside generally washes away because of extreme weather conditions and excessive rain. Again, this could vary depending on the surface it is applied to." Chalk also may contain calcium sulfate hemihydrate, which hardens when moistened and allowed to dry. Many types of chalk, including Sidewalk chalk is much harder than regular chalk, and in fact will actually scratch a typical chalkboard.

Shaving cream. Shaving Cream also contains a chemical known as stearic acid (defined by as "a colorless, waxy solid that is almost insoluble in water") which will cause the surface of the stone to exfoliate, especially if that stone is either granite, marble or limestone. Granite is an igneous rock, and therefore highly susceptible to any type of chemical weathering. By putting shaving cream on the stone, you are doing the same thing acid rain does over a long period of time, only you are hastening the destruction. Marble and Limestone are highly reactive to acids, and will actually sublimate in the presence of hydrochloric acid. That means it will go from a solid to a vapor without a liquid stage, as it releases certain parts of its chemical structure. Further reason for not using shaving cream lies in the potential damage over a very long period of time, not just a few years. The chemicals in shaving cream will permeate into the microscopic pores of the stone and will not be readily washed out. These chemicals, which consist of soaps, mineral oil, fatty alcohols and other skin conditioners are all organic compounds which are biodegradable. 
Since they are biodegradable, they provide food for microscopic organisms, fungi, mosses, etc. The growth of such organisms in the pores of a stone causes expansive forces which will gradually cause microscopic particles of the stone to be flaked off. These enlarged microscopic pores can also collect moisture in wet freezing weather and the freezing action causes microscopic fractures of the stone because, as you know, water expands upon freezing. In other words, only completely chemically inert materials should ever contact a tombstone.

Do use precaution when cleaning a stone.  First and foremost, cause no damage! Household cleaners, chalk and shaving cream that are used to enhance the lettering on headstones will injure the surface in ways that are not readily apparent. Caution should be used before you destroy what you set out to preserve.  A soft brush or natural sponge and water will help you remove surface soil and grime. Gently brush the stone to remove dirt and bird droppings. (Never use hard objects or stiff brushes to clean the stone)